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Do Not Mail — A New Problem for Mailers

May 2007 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
AT FIRST, the notion that states might consider adopting “Do Not Mail” legislation, which would mimic the infamous “Do Not Call” registry established in 2003, seemed more than a bit ridiculous. After all, getting advertising mail is hardly the equivalent of being interrupted by a phone call at dinner time and enduring a solicitor who wants to offer you a lower credit card interest rate via a balance transfer.

The beauty of direct mail solicitations is that they allow you to sift through advertisements on your terms—not during dinner, or your favorite television show, or when coming out of the shower, dripping water everywhere. But there are those who feel that direct mail advertising is not so much intrusive as it is a danger to the environment and an identity theft risk, which thus needs to be stopped.

We’re not making this stuff up, folks. According to the PIA/GATF Government Affairs department, “Do Not Mail” (DNM) legislation has been introduced in 14 states. In at least four of the states, bills have either been withdrawn or tabled, and none have moved to committee or have been brought to floor votes. In 2006, legislation was introduced in only four states.

Special interest groups are behind these legislative nightmares. The prospect of mail clogging up community landfills doesn’t appear realistic. The Mail Moves America coalition, citing statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, notes that direct mail accounts for just 2.2 percent (in weight) of the total municipal solid waste generated annually in the United States. Moreover, a record 51.5 percent of paper consumed in 2005 was recovered for recycling, the coalition says.

The notion that receiving credit card offers through the mail could put the recipient at risk for theft doesn’t hold water, either. Jim Andersen, president and CEO of Chanhassen, MN-based IWCO Direct, notes that while these legislative efforts are helping to build awareness about the value of mail and the urgent need for the industry to focus on address hygiene, he feels the efforts to link DNM legislation with helping to protect consumers from identity theft is misguided.

Identity Theft Risk?

“Identity theft can happen anywhere there’s data if appropriate protections are not in place,” Andersen says. “There is a far greater risk of your identity being compromised because someone took your credit card statement from your mailbox or grabbed your account number from a restaurant or retail transaction than from someone taking a credit card solicitation out of your mailbox.”

As absurd as the legislation seems, buoyed by the fact that most efforts haven’t progressed at all, there is still a concern among the mailing community. David Davis—whose Interquest market research and consulting firm provided research on postal reform and the recent rate case to PRIMIR members at Print Outlook in Chicago in March—polled publishers, printers, industry experts and lobbyists to gain a sense of where postal issues rated among the variables that are influencing print. DNM legislation, Davis reveals, was a commonly recurring theme.

The consequences of DNM legislation have helped stave off many efforts, as legislators are made aware of the fallout that would result from a drastic reduction in mail volume, primarily lost jobs and escalating postal rates.

“I don’t think it’s an issue that will go away. It will keep coming up again and again on a state level,” Davis says. “For many legislators, it’s an easy topic for them to talk about, at least superficially. Once those people are made aware of the potential impact on local jobs and the economy, they tend to back down and at least mitigate it somewhat.”

Leo Raymond, director of postal affairs for the Mailing & Fulfillment Service Association (MFSA) and a 35-year retired veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, believes DNM proponents have been able to misinform the media and politicians while misrepresenting public support for the cause. He feels offering compromise solutions that would placate the DNM movement is not in the industry’s best interests.

“It’s not a public position that the industry would want to take going in,” he says. “We believe there are overriding significant reasons to avoid any restrictions on the free exchange of printed messages, and concerns over poor targeting should be resolved by industry self-policing and best practices.”

IWCO Direct’s Andersen points out that offering a compromise providing protections for the elderly, as an example, suggests that DNM legislation would prohibit shady marketers from preying on populations such as senior citizens. In reality, the cause and effect relationship does not exist.

“One of the bills introduced recently [produced] that reaction by a state congressman who focused on the entire industry, rather than asking his Attorney General to look into the activities of one or two companies,” Andersen says. “Other efforts have provided so many exceptions—political, nonprofit, prior relations—that the protections being sought become diluted, while the penalties suggested are stronger than appropriate.”

The unintended consequences of such legislation could provide a greater backlash beyond those whose financial interest lies in the continued trafficking of direct mail. In talking to saturation mailers, Davis says their findings reveal that people tend to get angry if they don’t get general mass mailings, particularly advertisements for local businesses that may include specials or coupons.

DNM Legislation Myths

Some observers see DNM legislation as a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Julie Busbee, PIA/GATF director of government affairs, notes that there are already services in place to help consumers cut down on the amount of advertisements they receive. Among the options available are the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service (dmaconsumers.org) and optoutprescreen.com. The latter, created by the major U.S. credit bureaus, stops all credit card and other prescreened offers.

Busbee notes that a lot of business interests would be impacted by any legislation that curtails advertising mail, especially the small establishments like pizza parlors and dry cleaners that rely on mailings because they cannot afford the cost of mass advertising. Larger national mailers, she adds, would be handcuffed in their efforts to attract new customers should such legislation be realized.

Andersen believes the most positive elements that will emerge from the DNM dialogue are the need to find appropriate measures to protect personal data and improve address hygiene. “It’s important to remember that marketers really don’t want to mail to consumers who are not interested in their product,” he says. “On the minus side, DNM legislation would be crippling to printers, mailers and the USPS. One-third of postal revenue comes from standard/advertising mail. If this volume is reduced by such legislation, the USPS would be hard-pressed to replace that revenue in order to maintain the level of service that U.S. consumers demand.”

Is there any prospect of a federal DNM list becoming a reality? Given the problems such legislation is having at the state level, the odds are against it at this point. Andersen feels there are First Amendment and interstate commerce issues that could prove to be major roadblocks for the DNM faction. Davis points to the postal unions as being heavily involved and extremely effective in the resistance effort.

Busbee, however, warns against complacency. “Groups supporting Do Not Mail registries are modeling their efforts after the process that brought about the national Do Not Call registry, which was to work to get bills passed at the state level, with the goal of reaching a critical momentum that would prompt a federal bill,” she says.

Raymond is also wary of an end around, especially a politician who may see this as a leverage issue, an opportunity to curry favor. “My advice. . .never assume you’re safe,” he says. “My further advice—to mailers, printers and anyone linked to the industry—is to be attentive, alert, informed and prepared to respond effectively whenever anti-mail messages or proposals arise. Self-defense is always a sound practice.” PI
 

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